This past weekend's I took advantage of a little down time to catch up on one of the more recent "Westerns" that had been on my radar, Meek's Cutoff (2011). Seen in limited release earlier this summer, Meek's Cutoff starts Michelle Williams (Oscar-nominated for Brokeback Mountain), Bruce Greenwood and a number of character actors, including Cowboys v. Aliens' Paul Dano, you'd likely recognize as having seen before. This film could best be described as a revisionist western as it takes a slow, methodical, realistic look at the lives of two families who are traveling the Oregon Trail west guided by Steven Meek, portrayed here by Greenwood.
I have been a fan of Greenwood's since first seeing him many moons ago in Atom Egoyan's Exoctica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997). As Meek, Greenwood plays the archetypal male frontiersman complete with long beard, gravelly voice, rough attire and oozing a European disdain for all things Native--especially all things not already tamed by American settlers. If there is a "villain" in this film, it is Meek, but as in many modern westerns, the lines between good and evil, right and wrong, are very grey, and are at the very least, situational.
The choices Meek makes may appear on the surface (and certainly by modern sensibilities) "mean", given the character's historical context, are easily defendable. Additionally, that modern trope of "native v. visitor," makes its expected appearance as the group faces internal strife over the treatment of a lone Native American (Rod Rondeaux) interloper. "The Cayuse" (as the character is called in the credits) may or may not be the savior of the group as they wander along the Oregon Trail guided by Meek's who himself seems to be uncertain as to just where he is going.
Likely the most frustrating aspect of the film, especially to those anticipating a traditional western, is the lack of payoff provided by the script. Without giving away too much, it is enough to say that when the film ends, it ends... out of nowhere and with no clear resolution to the primary narrative drive of the story. That is not to suggest Meek's Cutoff is unwatchable. Quite the contrary, it is a beautifully filmed with tremendous vistas and (one can only assume) very realistic stark depictions of the conditions, both environmental and interpersonal, experienced by those who challenged the Oregon Trail in the interest of pursuing a better life.
In the end, I found Meek's Cutoff to be a sparse, deeply meditative, but ultimately unfulfilling observation of the westward ho!" American experience. Not without artistic merit, I'm sorry to report that as a film entertainment, it was something of a chore.